By Geoff Kirbyson, The Sports Xchange
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The love affair between Patrik Laine and fans of the Winnipeg Jets reached new heights Tuesday night as the Finnish sniper potted his third hat trick of the season in leading his team to a much-needed 5-2 victory over the Dallas Stars.
The 18-year-old notched the winner off an offensive zone face-off late in the third period by corralling the puck with Stars defenseman Dan Hamhuis trying to check him and ripping his 25th of the season over the outstretched glove of Antti Niemi.
He scored his 26th into an empty net with 62 seconds remaining, causing a cascade of headwear to rain down on to the ice surface.
Connor Hellebuyck stopped 34 of 36 shots in the Jets net to put a halt to what had been a disheartening four-game losing streak. Niemi stopped 19 of 22 shots at the other end of the ice.
The Jets also received goals from their slightly-less-celebrated Finn, winger Joel Armia (his fifth) and another empty-net goal from captain Blake Wheeler (his 17th). The Stars replies came off the sticks of forwards Jamie Benn (his 19th) and Tyler Seguin (his 21st).
And on this Valentine’s Day, it can surely be said that Laine loves playing against the Stars. In three home games against Dallas this year, he has eight goals, including two hat tricks.
“I hope that we play more often against them,” he said with a grin. “It’s always nice to score. It was a huge game for me and my linemates and the whole team. These last four games haven’t been that good so it was just nice to have a game like this.”
It was after the last of those four games, a lethargic 4-1 loss to Tampa on Saturday, that the Jets called a players-only meeting.
There’s no doubt Laine was listening as he bulged the twine for the first time in six games. He had just two goals in eight games since returning after missing another eight games with a concussion.
His three points bumped his season total up to 47, good for second in the rookie scoring race, sandwiched in between Toronto’s Mitch Marner (48) and Auston Matthews (46).
Perhaps just as importantly, the Jets held their opposition to under three goals for the first time in forever. (Sixteen games for those counting at home).
When Hellebuyck was asked if the win puts the Jets back in the playoff hunt — they’re currently four points behind Los Angeles, which sits in the second wild card spot in the Western Conference with four games in hand — he said with a smile, “It never went anywhere. We found ourselves (tonight). It took a little adversity but I think we’re finding ourselves.”
In a game of inches, the sophomore goalie also benefitted from three Dallas shots that rang off the iron in the third frame. When asked if it was a “weird” period, he smiled again.
“You could describe it as weird but as a goalie I’m going to say I forced them to do that. My angles were on and I forced them to hit the post, which I’m always happy with. I found my game, I’m very comfortable in it and I’m just building confidence now.”
He also enjoyed his vantage point for Laine’s second goal.
“That’s an incredible shot. You see him set him set it up, he sticks lifts (Hamhuis), he gets a little toe drag in there and puts in on net. That’s a world class player.”
He’ll get no argument from coach Paul Maurice, who thought Laine played his best game of the season.
“I only saw the overhead from the bench and couldn’t find the puck when it was going past the goalie so I would say that release is extraordinary. He gets the puck on and off his stick so fast that you can’t find it.”
“That’s the difference right in that pure talent. You go back two years ago and how hard we had to grind to crash one in. When you’re assessing Patty Laine and where he’s at — if he didn’t score the three goals, I could’ve still come out and said that was his best game of the season. All the other pieces to his game were NHL-right-on. Battles. Positioning. Finishing routes. Finishing a check. I didn’t put him on the ice at the end of the game because he had two and I was hoping to get three. We’re just trying to win the game. I put him on the ice because he was right.”
Stars coach Lindy Ruff was disheartened by the loss, particularly because he felt his team controlled the play for much of the game.
“I thought we had crossbars, posts… there’s nothing that really got away from us except the fact that the puck didn’t go in the net,” he said. “The only chance they got in the first period was the one that went in. We had about 10 minutes in the second that we were on our heels but I thought we got out of that and tied the game up. A couple plays to start the third (the Jets dominated) but after that I thought we had the puck most of the night.”